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1 Corinthians 1 is not an anti-intellectual manifesto

Posted at 09:00 on 18 July 2022

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 is probably one of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

There are a few things that everyone needs to understand about these verses.

  • They are not a command to drop out of school or university.
  • They are not an instruction to pretend that you don't understand things that you do.
  • They are not a free pass to make things up, or to preach falsehood or misinformation.
  • They are not an invitation to let your education or training go to waste.
  • They are not a licence to view subject matter experts with contempt.
  • They are not an excuse for sloppy thinking, intellectual laziness, or dumbing things down.
  • They are not intended to make anyone feel ashamed of their Oxbridge or Ivy League education.

The "foolish things of this world" that Paul talks about here are people who lack education and understanding for reasons beyond their control. In New Testament times, only one or two percent of the population could even read or write. Basic literacy and numeracy skills were a privilege on a par with getting into Oxford or Cambridge today. In modern times, they refer to people such as children with Down Syndrome; to those born into poverty; to those living in war zones whose schools have been bombed and whose teachers have been killed; and to victims of discrimination who have been denied an education simply because of who they are. They do not refer to people who lower their intellectual standards by choice.

Unfortunately, far too often I have heard these verses preached in ways that seem to encourage or even command these things, telling us not to be afraid to appear "odd" or "unintellectual." To be sure there may be times when we may need to stand for positions that are unpopular, or take decisions that appear crazy at first -- any venture capitalist will tell you that very often the best ideas fall into this category, only to be vindicated later on -- but when the message being preached is one that demonises "reason" and critical thinking as if they were the enemies of faith, or when the "foolishness" being proclaimed is outright misinformation, then what we are looking at is the glorification of wilful ignorance. Such behaviour is not just foolishness; it is laziness and dishonesty.

It also misses the point of these verses completely. Paul's statement here is primarily a political one. Knowledge is power, and very often people with a good education or superior technical knowledge use that knowledge to control and manipulate others. We see that in politicians, we see it in lobbyists and marketers, we see it in the military-industrial complex, and we see it in advertisers and Big Tech, who invest vast sums of money on data mining and coming up with algorithms to manipulate and control people. One of the recurring themes throughout the Bible is redressing the balance of power away from people such as these towards those who are less fortunate. That is what the Beatitudes are all about, for example.

So what about those of us who do have a good education? For us, the relevant passage of Scripture is the Parable of the Talents. It's a familiar story -- three servants were entrusted with their employer's assets; two put them to work and doubled their investments, while a third just went and buried his in the ground. The response of their boss is pretty much what you would expect: the two who doubled their investments got promoted, while the one who did nothing ended up getting fired.

There is no shame in being intelligent or well-educated. Our skills, abilities and education are a gift from God and we need to acknowledge them as such and give thanks for them. But more importantly, we need to put them to use in ways that are fruitful. And we need to use them to protect those who do not have the same blessings as we do. There are ways in which their lack of education and understanding leaves them vulnerable to deception and manipulation, and we need to support them, protect them, and help them to avoid it.

Featured image credit: Tom Hilton (via Flickr)